During the Vietnam War, those of us in the bush, carried everything we owned on our backs and were always on the move. The water in our canteens had a bitter after-taste from both the plastic canteen itself and the iodine tablets we used to ‘purify’ the water; supposedly killing the bacteria and other parasites, but leaving those dead ‘thingies’ floating around like the contents inside of a shaken bottle of apple cider vinegar. Thankfully, the canteen wasn’t see through. There was only one time of the day when the canteen water was ‘chilled’ and that was the first thing in the morning…but, of course, we heated it to make hot coffee or cocoa. Afterward, it was tepid and lukewarm – not refreshing at all, but kept us going.
We ate C-ration food ‘meals’ both cold and heated (cold when we were on the move and heated when there was enough daylight left after settling in for the night). Most meats were covered in a layer of grease – kind of like what’s left in a cooled frying pan after making a dozen crispy pieces of bacon. When heated, this slimy glob disappears as it is absorbed into the meat; when having to eat it cold, we’d first scrape the thick film from the meat patty before sandwiching it between two round crackers.
In my opinion, scrambled egg chunks, beans and wienies, and spaghetti and meatballs were the best choices for cold meals. Either way – cold or hot, the taste of c-ration meat was either bland or contained way too much salt. Of course, we’d sometime combine ingredients like pineapple bits or applesauce into some heated meals to liven them up; or just feast on peaches or fruit cocktail – providing you had some in your stash. The popular meals with pound cake, peaches and fruit cocktail were prized and worth their weight in gold – many soldiers hoarded them to barter for items during evening chow breaks; only one of each are included in every case of twelve meals. Note: Those hoarding were usually the non-smokers who also hoarded cigarettes and used them to trade for these prized deserts.
Some of the personal gear carried inside our rucksacks were a watch with glowing hands, wallets with some MPC notes, transistor radios w/earbud, photos of wives and/or girlfriends, a camera, a paperback book, writing material / pen, and letters from home to read over and over again. That was about it! During a resupply, many of us hoped to get mail – but if somebody in your squad got a care package from home – it was like winning ‘The Publisher’s Clearing House” sweepstakes.
Care packages were few and far in-between, and when received, they not only brought us a ‘touch from home’, but also included cherished items to make our lives easier. Of course when this happened, everything else was secondary; fellow squad members were an anxious bunch and wanted to uncover the bounty and divvy everything up. Getting a package from home also made us feel that someone really cared about us which also brought up morale. Many packages arrived crushed, beat-up and unrecognizable – some even spilling its contents onto the ground through large holes that mysteriously appeared during transit, but each one was special and held many treasures – items that we’d requested in earlier letters home.
Every package included tins of “cookie crumbs” broken up, and pulverized – home-made chocolate chip, peanut butter, almond, and butter cookies; scooping handfuls into our mouths and chewing slowly to savor the taste. It was like a visit to Heaven!
Other treasures included sweetened Kool-Aid, Tang, lemonade, and gourmet instant coffees were excellent at camouflaging the taste of our water; Heintz-57, Tabasco sauce, and mustard enhanced the taste of our food; suckers, hard candy and packs of chewing gum helped keep our mouths lubricated while humping or during nightly guard duty; small cans of Spam, tuna, Vienna Sausages, Campbell soups, deviled ham, sardines, corned beef hash, popped bags of popcorn (usually ended up as cushioned filler inside the box), melted chocolate bars, pretzel rod pieces, letters and cards from family, magazines, home town newspapers and Sunday comic sections usually rounded out the bounty. Many of the Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and southern gents always received various colored peppers from home and would eat them like potato chips. Needless to say, many of us – me included – wanted to try one. What a huge mistake! We ALL learned our lessons after only taking one bite.
The recipient of the package always got first dibs and took what he wanted, and then everyone else would take turns until it was gone and the packaging burned and ashes buried. Single items like condiments were shared within the group nightly and life in the jungle was just a little bit better for the next week or so.
After providing feedback to senders on the shape of the package and its contents, the next shipments were much improved and cookies were whole again and usually devoured first. I remember my mother sending me a canned ham in one of the packages I received. If you read my book, “Cherries”, then you know the squad took turns carrying that five pound container for three days in anticipation of a grand meal on the third day.
When everything was ready and the can was finally opened – the ripe scent of spoiled pork flashed through the perimeter and almost resulted in a revolt by fellow platoon members. Thankfully, once everything was buried, and cleaned up, the smell dissipated and fortunately, we didn’t have to relocate to a different position. We all shouldered the blame because none of us took the time to read the can and see “Keep refrigerated” printed in large block letters on the side. I was the brunt of jokes about my poor mom for the next couple of weeks, but it was all in fun and between us brothers. None of them would accept the excuse that mom couldn’t read English because they knew she personally wrote most of the letters that I received. Still, they appreciated the gesture – each wrote individual ‘thank you’ notes which I included in the next couple of letters home.
Prior to Christmas, mom sent a package containing a small table top Christmas tree complete with lights, garland, and tiny ornaments. I was lucky that we were in Cu Chi for stand down, otherwise, it would have to be buried with the trash as I wasn’t going to try and hump it through the jungles. We did put it together and as it turned out, had the only holiday decoration within the company, which solicited visits from those staying in the other hooches. Note the coffee cans above with individually wrapped home baked holiday cookies. (I’m on the left looking away)
Most holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal milestones came and went without fanfare. However, when receiving a care package from home, it was a time for a celebration. When multiple packages arrived on the same time – it was a treasure overload!
What about today’s soldiers? The following is a list of recommendations courtesy of J.O.S.H. – a group that will create a package to send for you. Their website: https://www.justoursoldiershelpers.org/care-packages.html However, be advised that this is not a personal endorsement, because there are tons of websites out there that will build and ship a package for you…or…you can still build one and ship it yourself.
These are some of the items usually included in packages today:
Beef Jerky/Slim Jims (Short Type)
Nuts (All Kinds)
Tuna (Foil Pouch)
Coffee (One pound bags or smaller, ground Only)
Crystal Light, Gatorade, Mio, Propel (Individually Packaged Water Flavors)
Antiperspirant/Deodorant (Axe, Degree, Dove, Right Guard – solids only)
Body Wash (Axe, Dial, Dove, Nivea, Old Spice)
Razors (Schick, Gillette – good, lubricated razors only)
Shaving Gel (Squeezable tubes only. We cannot ship aerosols of any kind.)
Other items we ship are:
Canned Chili and Soup (Pull Top Cans)
Canned Fruit (Pull Top Cans)
Chicken and Tuna Salad (Foil Pouch or Ready to Eat Kits)
Easy Mac in Cups
Granola Bars/Energy Bars/Protein Bars
Instant Coffee (Individually Packaged)
Protein Shake Powder
Rice Krispie Treats (Winter months only)
Note: Pork products cannot be shipped to the Middle East, so no Vienna Sausages, please.
Chap Stick, Carmex, Blistex
Fabric Softener Sheets (small boxes)
Feminine Hygiene (Tampax Sport, Playtex Pearl, Always Pads)
Laundry Detergent – (Small bottles of liquid detergent or small bags of laundry pods)
Lotion (Hand and Body – Bath & Body Works is a big treat for females)
Q-Tips (Q-Tip brand only, no large packages please) Toothpaste/Toothbrush
Over-The-Counter Medications (Nothing with aspirin and no sleep-aids)
Air Fresheners (Solids or Stick-Ups)
Black Ink Pens and Mechanical Pencils
Black or Green Boot Socks (Cotton or Wool)
Brown/Black Hair Ties for Female Soldiers
Hand Warmers (October through February only)
Socks, White or Black (must cover ankle, no logos)
Winter Hats (Wool)
Thanks, mom and my younger sis, Christine! Your packages to me were always a wonderful surprise – those of us in the First Platoon were always grateful for your gifts from home and for making our days in Vietnam more tolerable and special…in more ways than you’ll ever know! RIP MOM! I miss you!
What about you readers…did you receive packages when deployed? Who usually sent it and what was the best package you received?
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